As it turned out, there was no struggle to fill the extra time in Thimphu. We met with the guide we had hired through our friends' travel company Bhutan Swallowtail about the logistics of our upcoming trek, then did a thorough scour of a few grocery stores that offer good selections of imported chilip-friendly food and put together a trekking meal menu that we were pretty excited about (even if our guide and his assistant wouldn't be so much...). While picking up the last few items at "8-Eleven", an energetic blue-eyed woman poked her head through the aisle in between some loaves of bread and said, "Hello, not to be creeping on you or anything, but are you Matt and Casey?" Cathy had just added us to a Thimphu ex-pats Facebook group and checked out my (our) profile in the process. She invited us to join her in meeting up with some other ex-pats for dinner and we accepted. It was certainly interesting to hear the stories of foreign volunteers working in hospitals, colleges, and even providing veterinary care to the takins (Bhutan's national animal) in Thimphu's Takin Preserve, but it made for a late night of packing. We did get a bit of extra sleep though since our hotel had had no water supply for the last 24 hours, so last minute showers were not an option.
Our guide Ugyen picked us up in a local taxi promptly at 6:30am as promised and we drove to Paro after also picking up his friend Kunzang on the way. We tried to acquire a couple of liters of some kerosene at the petrol station for the cook stove, but due to shortages it was strictly regulated, so we ended up with the lovely fuel option of diesel instead. The taxi drove us as far up the rough road as it could manage, then we got situated on the side of the road with our bags, or in Kunzang's case, woven bamboo basket with horribly uncomfortable looking thin rope straps. To make things worse, he then piled their on ridiculously bulky and heavy tent for two people, but the only one they could find to rent independent of a company tour. Treks in Bhutan typically involve an entourage of pack horses, a horseman, cook, and kitchen assistants in addition to a guide, so the concept of lightweight gear and backpacking minimalism is almost nonexistent here. We tried to prep Ugyen and Kinzang for a different style of trekking than they were used to, but going against the grain had already served up some challenges.
We hiked up a logging trail to the Jele Dzong perched on a ridge line overlooking the Paro Valley. With the dzong under renovation, the structure wasn't particularly striking, but the chapel provided a unique opportunity to see an altar dedicated to Paro's protector deity. We lunched in a field of prayer flags with a captivating view of Jhomolhari and then continued on to our first night's camp, a dusty yak herding pasture that had a distracting amount of litter strewn about. The sun had dipped behind the ridge by the time we were setting up camp, and we were quickly introduced to the reality of just how cold the nights were going to be on our dead-of-the-winter trek. It wasn't long before Ugyen and Kunzang had a beautiful campfire going to keep the shivers at bay, which we welcomed despite our confusion about why we brought a camp stove when they ingeniously set up a configuration of stones and branches to begin cooking dinner over it. We had some celebratory cinnamon hot chocolate spiked with Bhutanese whiskey, followed by a decent soup with dehydrated pumpkin and chicken sausage over rice, the last rice these Bhutanese men would eat for several days and a situation almost unheard of in Bhutan. We had warned them: no rice, and BYO chilies...so...do you still want to come? With a quick look at the spectacular night sky and an early bedtime for all, it felt nice to be camping after a long while.
The next day we took the high route along the ridge lines above our campsite for continuous 360 degree views with Ugyen, while Kunzang hiked a shorter lower route through the valley. At the end of the day, we descended purposefully to Jimilangtso, an alpine lake set back in a steep sided valley. This made for an extra cold but scenic campsite with far less garbage, but many landmines of uncovered poop pits dug by commercial trekking groups right in the prime spots to pitch a tent! We were a little surprised that Kunzang was not already there waiting for us, but through a very traditional Bhutanese communication system of hoots and whistles, Ugyen determined he was at the other end of the half-frozen lake.
Rather than joining us as expected, his whistles became more persistent as we set up the tent a relatively safe distance from any crap craters. Ugyen continued to ignore him, until finally we asked, "Are you sure Kunzang is okay over there?" We had a sneaking suspicion that he had already set up camp and was not planning on moving, but Ugyen had already said there was no place to camp at the other forested end. Finally, Ugyen set off to see what was going on, and returned with Kunzang to help us move our tent to the other side of the lake where suddenly it was a better place to camp: warmer, out of the wind, and with more firewood available. Even if that were the case, by that time we had totally unpacked and were feeling frustrated about how the miscommunication had been handled, so we resisted and they quickly agreed to move their tent to our side.
We spent the night freezing in our sleeping bag despite wearing all of our layers, including our rain jacket and rain pants. The next morning everything was covered in a heavy frost and the sun teased us for hours by traveling horizontally behind ridge above us, taking its sweet time to crest the top, which was essential for defrosting both the tent and us. Meanwhile, the alternative camping option basked in the sun at least an hour ahead of us. True punishment for being stubborn, of course.
Dinner was a big hit with Ugyen and Kunzang, still cooked over the open fire since we had discovered the camp stove was not working when Matt persistently tried to fire it up the day before. We introduced them to couscous and magically produced sealed packets of pre made Indian food to top it with. We had been pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the Paneer Butter Masala and Aloo Matar in Thimphu, a strikingly similar equivalent of the "Tasty Bites" I grew up backpacking with. To be honest, this meal conjured up a strong childhood nostalgia despite so many other elements of that moment being drastically different from backpacking in Glacier National Park with my family.
We had been promised a spectacular sunrise, but Matt had set the alarm for after the fact and Ugyen came to our tent yelling "Sunrise!" as it was happening, so I stumbled out of the tent grumpy and discombobulated to a blinding light above a sea of almost equally blinding white clouds below. Given that I don't even do sunrises in the first place, I squinted into the general direction I was supposed to be excited about, then went about my morning routine of actually waking up while Matt enthusiastically snapped photos (of the early morning light, thankfully, not me...).
At a reasonable hour to be awake, we broke camp and had just a little elevation to gain for the day, taking a last look at the panorama of peaks to the north. A dramatically perched chorten at the edge of the ridge marked the beginning of our steep descent to Phajoding Monastery with its tiered roofs spread out across the hillside below. Beyond Phajoding was a hazy view of the city of Thimphu filling the valley and creeping up any slope not too steep to support a building.
Our black dog unadopted us as we approached the monastery, like to avoid starting a turf war with the resident canines there. We were unable to enter the temples since the monks were taking written exams inside of them, so we continued down endless switchbacks through the forest to emerge at a road where our taxi driver from the first day was waiting for us. We felt a sense of accomplishment for having trekked from Paro to Thimphu and in about half the time a standard tourist group would take. As the Druk Path is one of the most popular treks in Bhutan, the trail was well defined and in retrospect hiring a guide was not really necessary. Nonetheless, we really appreciated having Ugyen's additional knowledge and insights to deepen our experience. Since we could not rely on the camp stove, Kunzang's enthusiasm for fire building and skills cooking over it were also essential to our warmth and, well, survival.
We said our thank yous and goodbyes to Ugyen and Kunzang and checked in to the lovely Hotel Sambauv where there was at least water now, but no hot water. Hmmm...we were thoroughly dust-covered from the trail, smelled of campfire and worse, and hadn't showered for two days before the trek either. "What to do?" as the common phrase goes around here. Quite luckily for us, we had a backup option. The SFS program director had kindly given me a gift certificate for pool and gym access at Taj Tashi, a five star luxury hotel. So after having pizza delivered to our $20 hotel room, we wandered over to the Taj and confidently presented the voucher for "us". The attendant did not bat an eye, so we rushed off to our respective bathrooms for truly amazing showers before a soak in the almost-hot-enough jacuzzi. The perfect juxtaposition to our trek was also a wonderful way to wrap it up.
Afterwards, we poked around the lobby and wondered what all of the extra dough for your digs really gets you. In this deeply Buddhist and Hindu country, the hotel was one of the few places we had seen decked out for Christmas. A decorated tree stood in the center of the room and as we walked by I instinctively redirected my path to keep it on my right, subconsciously treating it like a chorten. I recognized my reaction to the Christmas tree a little after the fact and laughed, "You know you've been in Bhutan a long time when you automatically circle another religion's objects clockwise!"